Super-Exploited, Raped, Undocumented, and No Access Without Fear: Maria’s Story


by Martha Roberts

The following content derives from a speech delivered by Martha Roberts, a practicing Registered Midwife in Vancouver and a member of the Alliance for People’s Health, at the 3rd Annual Day of Action for Refugee Health Care in Vancouver on June 16, 2014.  The title of the original speech is “End Medical Profiteering! Demand Health for All!”

I’d like to tell you story; a story about a woman who’s baby I recently delivered. It is a true story, and a common story. This story is not unique. It is one story of thousands, a story of who benefits and who loses from forced migration and global chains of economic exploitation.

Maria came to Canada in August from United Arab Emirates through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to be a low-wage cashier for the Canadian operations of an unnamed global petrochemical corporation. Shortly after arriving in Canada Maria discovered she was pregnant, having been briefly reunited with her husband who was working construction in Dubai over the summer. Maria planned to continue working her contract and planned to only take a few days off to give birth to her baby, who would be sent to live with family. Her story of economic exploitation and family separation is heartbreaking, but the story doesn’t end there.

Shortly after Maria started work in Canada her employer started to request that Maria go out on dates with important clients after she finished her work. For precarious workers, abuse and theft are common experiences. Afraid of losing her job and being forced to leave Canada, Maria complied, until finally she was raped. Two months after starting to work in Canada, Maria fled sexual violence from her employer, wound up in a women’s shelter with no open work permit, pregnant with no access to medical care or health care coverage, fearing reprisal for breaking her contract, and terrified of being deported with no money to provide for herself or her family.

As a midwife and a community health organizer, I was glad to be connected to Maria, and to provide some basic free maternity care until she could apply for an open work permit, have her [B.C.] Medical Services Plan application reinstated, and find new employment – a process which would take her well beyond the birth of her baby. Maria was able to mobilize community supports and resources for herself and her baby – but not every woman forced to migrate for economic or political reasons has this support. Maria was forced to decline recommended ultrasounds and prenatal testing due to lack of finances and fear of discovery, Maria worried through her entire pregnancy about Canadian Border Service Agency officers arriving to deport her, about the very real possibility of her work permit being denied, about lacking any savings and being not able to support her 5-year-old son and her own parents, from whom she had been separated for over 3 years.

Maria wasn’t a refugee claimant, but no doubt Maria was forced to migrate, enduring family separation, employer violence, and gross economic exploitation due to an economic system built on the cheap labour of migrant workers and the unpaid reproductive work of women.

As a midwife looking after moms and babies I know first-hand that cuts to health care for refugees and the gross lack of accessible health care services for undocumented and temporary workers hurts entire generations as women are forced to decline essential diagnostic tests and treatments due to cost. And while I’m a home birth advocate, home birth should be about love and trust, and not based in fear of costs or harassment by immigration or corrupt bosses. After years of struggle to make midwifery care accessible to all, we still haven’t achieved this goal.

Families go without access to health care because the federal government stated it wanted to “save” a paltry $100 million…

Yet our tax dollars funded:

  • $785 million dollars to arm 4800 CBSA officers;
  • $600 million to build 2,700 new prison cells; and
  • 2.84 billion in federal and provincial subsidies to petrochemical industries
  • wrong-priorities

Why? Because precarious workers without any rights but with a lot of fear form a cheap and readily-available labour pool, working to earn greater profits for big businesses and their bosses & shareholders;

Because shifting public dollars from health care increases industry subsidies and funding for the security culture and the mass incarceration agenda.

Why should health care workers struggle for economic justice?

Privatization, de-regulation and trade liberalization aren’t just buzz words we use to feel smart. Neoliberalism is the basis of a string of economic and political attacks on the health of working class and marginalized communities.

The roll-back of essential services that we have all come to rely on due to low wages and the rising cost of living is an attack on the health of working class and marginalized communities.

It is time for health care workers to accept that we have to make a choice: Which side are we on? Are we on the side of people? Or are we on the side of profits?

´       Do we really believe that armed CBSA agents are good for the health of our communities?

´       Do we really believe that incarcerating for women crimes of poverty is good for the health of our communities?

´       Do we really believe that subsidizing mining, pipelines, and fracking is good for the health of our communities?

´       Do we really believe that denying public health insurance to refugees and undocumented workers is good for the health of our communities?

If our society wasn’t based on profit – wouldn’t our common goal be health and a meaningful life for all?

We must develop a structural analysis of our economy, of our federal budget, to expose and oppose the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power in our society.

We must decry the ongoing colonial occupation of these lands.

We must be brave and declare these cuts as a component of ongoing injustices under capitalism.

It is time for health care workers to join with communities in the struggle for access to health care in the context of a broader struggle for social and economic justice.